Guest blog – Volunteers in the Conservation Sector (4) by Louise Bacon

Louise writes: I used to be a biochemist studying human immune system malfunction whilst being a part-time naturalist and conservationist. Then I converted to being an environmental data geek, which is what I do part of the time in a vague attempt to pay the bills I have been a birder since childhood, and am now the Cambridgeshire county bird recorder, and am also a butterfly and moth enthusiast, with an interest in several other taxon groups including lichens, ants and molluscs, and when not in front of maps or a database can usually be found in woodlands carrying out vital management work, or surveying farmland birds.

A year ago, Mark published my first guest blog on volunteering, where we mused on the monetary value of volunteers, and how this was appreciated or valued within conservation charities.

There was much comment, and I was actually congratulated by a couple of senior NGO managers on raising the issue, or maybe simply on sticking my head above the parapet.  Thank you to whichever commenter found a very useful link. I decided to follow up on the actual value, as my initial estimate of £10m was very clearly so far wrong.

The analysis to which I was sent, published by the National Biodiversity network in 2015, was an assessment of the monetary value of long-term monitoring schemes, such as the Breeding Bird Survey, National Plant Monitoring Scheme and numerous others. It compared the financial contribution of volunteers with that of the NGO partners and Government bodies to these programmes, and estimated that the voluntary contribution is worth £8.6m. The NBN include caveats and state firstly that this is an extremely conservative estimate when less structured recording and the processing of records is fully accounted for and secondly that it does not include unstructured recording. They admit the difficulties in assessing how long records take to gather, collate, submit to schemes, verify, etc.

Various conservation NGOs also do their own assessments, but the only easily-available statistics are usually the numbers of volunteers per year or, for some organisations, the numbers of hours per year.  Some NGOs, exampled here by Butterfly Conservation (BC) and the BTO, publish within their annual report a statement on the number of volunteer hours and the monetary equivalent. For the year 2017-18, they estimate £11million and £33million respectively, with 219700 and 17000 days of time given. This is approximately 3.5 and 6 times their annual income. It is noteworthy that both organisations co-ordinate a very large pool of volunteers, many of whom contribute the hours of fieldwork that generate the long-term monitoring datasets analysed by the NBN. However, the two organisations assign very different monetary values to volunteer hours, the BTO values an hour at £20 whilst BC half of that (c.f. the UK adult minimum wage of £8.21 per hour). This increased in the most recent financial year 2018-19 to 224900 volunteer days for the BTO, having dropped the monetary comparator; BC give an increase in value to £14million and an increase in days to over 220000.

In their annual reports, many of the county wildlife trusts simply give a number of volunteers, but the UK-wide Wildlife Trusts body cites 1.7million volunteer hours by 3,5000 volunteers in 2017-18 across the 46 trusts of the UK The accounts show a combined income £143m across those trusts. I have used a figure similar to that assigned by BTO to volunteer hours, and the volunteer time across the trusts amounts to £34m, only about 25% of the annual income, widely different to both the BTO and BC, but the wildlife trusts do not administer monitoring schemes in the way that the other two organisations do. I think that much more of their accounted volunteer time is in local reserve management through practical work, and through monitoring, or being a voluntary warden, or attending publicity events. The actual counties are, however, extremely variable.  I have selected a few counties or areas which have some meaning in my own personal life….

Norfolk WT, for example, state in their 2017-18 annual report that the time given by volunteers is equivalent to 31 staff full-time equivalents.  In 2018-19, however, the only statement I can find is that 1449 people volunteered, up 7% on the previous year. A quote from Pamela Abbott, the NWT CEO elaborates; “Last year, 1499 people gave 57,416 hours of their time to benefit Norfolk’s wildlife which equates to 32 full-time staff and represents an additional 30% of staff time for the organisation“. Lincolnshire simply provide a sentence stating that their volunteers are very highly valued.  The Wildlife Trust for Beds, Cambs and Northants is somewhere in between, with their 2017-18 statement simply being “We are supported by around 9 volunteers for every 1 member of staff“, but improving a little this year with “76309 hr, 10 vols per staff” and a couple of gushing quotes “Volunteers are crucial in all areas of our work. From mid-week work parties, to admin support in the office, from ecological monitoring to running a Wildlife Watch Group. There are so many different ways that volunteers offer their time and help us achieve all that we do for local wildlife and for this, we are truly grateful” and “My highlight would be the extraordinary effort put in by our volunteers – it seems to get bigger each year, and it’s not just people doing practical work but also stock checking – including feeding the cows and general wardening – it makes a real difference.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust has a very detailed set of targets for volunteer and public engagement within their targets and achievements section of annual reports, but it is very hard work to wade through, and I was not able to find a simple summary along any of those lines, although their figures will be included in the UK Wildlife Trusts assessment I mention above.

The value of volunteer time for BC, BTO and Wildlife Trusts combined totals an estimated value of £81million equivalent; a sum way above the real income of these conservation charities individually.  This is also already far more than my original estimate, but it is 1, a very variable contribution, 2, noted and acknowledged in very different ways, making an assessment of the value in the sector very difficult and 3, often very hard to find this information in the appendices of annual report statements.

There are 2 big NGOs missing here, but there are also figures available in annual reports; “The RSPB enjoyed the support of 12,101 volunteers last year, giving the RSPB a gift of time of 1,032,181 hours. 24% of all the time worked to save nature is undertaken by our volunteers and they account for 85% of our workforce“. Noteworthy that the BTO packs more volunteer hours than the RSPB – that’s maybe the lure of participating in national monitoring projects such as WeBS, Ringing, BBS, etc.? Lastly, the National Trust “Volunteers have always provided the backbone of our service delivery and 2018/19 was no exception. A team of over 65,000 volunteers in over 500 roles from beekeeping to firefighting donated more than 4.8 million hours of their time to support our work“. The National Trust are clearly aware of the need to see how their volunteers feel, as the following quote from the same annual report attests: “We are truly grateful for their dedication and the role that they play in helping us to meet our goals. Our annual volunteer survey provides us with insight to understand how best to support them. This year’s results are the highest we have achieved since introducing the survey in 2010, with 95% of volunteers stating that they would recommend volunteering for the National Trust, and 67% saying they would ‘strongly recommend’ it. The latter is 6% higher than last year and 6% ahead of our target. We are not complacent. We know that there is still much to do in improving dialogue with our volunteers. To help address this, we piloted a new portal called Volunteer Voice for a user group of 1,000 of our volunteers enabling them to share experiences and swap ideas as well as providing the opportunity for feedback and suggestions. The portal has been well received and we will continue to develop it during 2019/20

If we assume that about half of the NT volunteer time is on biodiversity-related rather than built-environment related (for no other reason than the NT covers both of these things) then the whole lot, across BC, BTO, Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and National Trust adds up to about 8.4 million volunteer hours and over £145million equivalent value in paid time. Phew, that is a serious amount of time given for free.

It maybe just me, but I do feel that AGMs, members’ days, annual reports, this year seem to be making a bit more of their volunteers. I received personalised or personalised but automated, thank you emails from CEOs, senior managers etc from two or three NGOs for which I still volunteer.  The BTO, for instance, had their annual conference topic as celebrating their volunteers…

A complete monetising of the volunteering given to conservation is not the way to go.  It is very true that there is a large benefit to the volunteers in learning and developing skills, in gaining confidence and experience, in personal wellbeing and health, but, if their time commitment increases, does the disillusionment grow too?  It seems increasingly hard to recruit new volunteers to the more time-consuming or expert roles, and to take voluntary organising roles, and increasingly, existing volunteers are asked to take on extra roles, and start to feel responsible when things don’t get done because there isn’t a volunteer to do them. It is probably time for the conservation charities to step up and fully acknowledge that they do not function without volunteers, and just how much they are worth. We are not there yet, but with the likelihood of a diminishing pool of volunteers, an increasing demand on both staff and volunteer time within wildlife NGOs and the constant need to balance both finances and work-life balance, should we be having a look at just how much we rely on volunteers?

A final quote from Pamela Abbott, NWT “Across the organisation, we benefit enormously from the contribution of volunteers. The diversity of voluntary roles range from surveying on reserves, churchyards and commons, raising funds for our work, leading nature walks and carrying out practical conservation tasks, leading beach cleans, giving talks about Norfolk’s wildlife, helping at visitor centres as well as administrative roles. All of these voluntary roles support or enhance work that could not otherwise by undertaken by the Trust. Our volunteers have a dedicated volunteer coordinator to look after their wellbeing and ensure we can find them a role in the organisation that suits their skills and interests. The presence of volunteers also gives staff more time to interact with visitors to our sites and visitor centres and enables visitors to be inspired by the enthusiasm for nature from volunteers as well as staff. We are really keen to show our appreciation of our volunteers and organise events which bring them together to meet each other and hear about the wider conservation context in which their contribution plays such a vital part.

Celebrate them at least as much as at present and probably more so, but also acknowledge the need to avoid becoming completely dependent on them to run our wildlife conservation movement. They are worth at least ninety million pounds that the sector certainly doesn’t have to pay salaries; And remember…….If we did have that money, then just think how much more we could achieve. We would still have the pool of happy, skilled volunteers working alongside contented staff with bigger budgets to finance long-term species surveillance, practical management work and spreading the word to the next generation ten times more effectively than we do now.

So, do I feel more valued?  Maybe, but the value of the time I give, and that given by others, has been put into more context by my embarking on this broader analysis, and it does seem that this is being taken more seriously across at least some of the conservation NGOs.